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12/25/2011

Autumn 2011: Koyo and other seasonal images in review

Happy holidays everyone! Its been awhile since my last post, and while it may be a bit unseasonable, I'd like to discuss this past autumn and the beauty of the changing of the seasons here. For something a bit more Christmas-y, I'd highly recommend Cynthia's post just down the page a bit.

Koyo, or the changing of the leaves' colors, is one of the more pleasant long, drawn-out seasonal experiences I've ever had. Although it may already be Christmas, fall didn't really seem to even begin to come to an end in Tokyo until about two weeks ago. There aren't really many signs of "winter" that make themselves present even at this time of year (beyond a few glimpses of snow, which I'll touch on later); in fact, the weather here is rather warmer compared to my native Maryland and especially Pittsburgh. So the fact that the leaves continued to show some really beautiful colors until very recently struck me as a strange but pleasant surprise, and if I didn't think it before it has certainly come to represent the beauty and variety of Japan's four seasons. With that, let's take a look back on that autumn that was.

My first real attempt to get a taste of Koyo was a brief trip to Kyoto I took back in early November, the height of autumn in America but pretty early for any real color in Japan. I won't say that I was completely disappointed with the colors I got to see, but it was really too early to get a good sense of what the true beauty of the season is like. Of course no matter how well one plans, it all changes from tree to tree, and so you can't really tell where the best spots are going to be with any real certainty that early. In hindsight, I might have tried to delay the trip for another time, so I might have seen Kyoto in its full autumn radiance, but on the same hand one doesn't have as many breaks from school, and as I've learned its much better to take life by the horns and just go.

First signs of autumn in the park adjacent to Nara's Todaiji (the largest wooden structure in the world)
In truth, as far as I could see the only thing that was really in full bloom at that time was kaki, or persimmon, a fruit that grows like dandelion all over Japan. There were available to the extent that one could very easily pick them off of a low hanging branch without much effort (not that I was inclined to take someone else's property, as many of these trees grow in yards).

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Just like Koyo or even Sakura (cherry blossoms), kaki  have their own place in the pantheon of seasonal symbolic images, as reflected by their presence in several offerings that I saw during my time in Kyoto, including in a great offering at the Gosho, the imperial court and palace of the Heian era.

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To return to the topic of koyo, the trees along the banks of the Kamo river had begun to show the early signs of the season as well.

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The annual changing of the colors of leaves is in my opinion a much bigger deal in Japan than in the U.S. Perhaps this is because the four seasons are regarded much more as a unique aspect of this country's aesthetics, and as a result the Japanese have a sense of national pride and interest in actively engaging in seasonal activities of this sort. I can't remember the last time I heard a bunch of college students in the U.S. sitting around a computer talking animatedly about whether the autumn colors were still in season at such-and-such mountain, but I've heard it here. TV news reporters travel around for the express purpose of covering koyo. Daily tv updates on where the colors are peaking are common, with more detailed information available on the web. There is much of a similar consideration given to sakura in the spring, and as I mentioned before, even college students make a point to take time out to enjoy these natural wonders. truly, this is a country that values natural signs of seasonal change.

The best look I got at Japanese koyo in its full glory would have to have been during our time on Miyajima island in Hiroshima. It was completely unexpected (being closer to December at that time), but nonetheless a truly nice surprise. The leaves are really only at their peak colors for a short time, and the mix of shades of red, yellow, orange and even green respectively make for some great picture opportunities. Even if you're just an amateur photo-taker like me, you'll find that the leaves provide all of the シャッタチャンス("Shutter chance," or photo-ops) you could possibly want.

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After Miyajima, I had one last opportunity to see the changing of the seasons on a day trip to Takao-san, a mountain within about an hour's reach by train from Shinjuku. Although a majority of the trees were already past their autumn primes and were beginning to shed their leaves in preparation for hibernation, there were still some trees sporting colors. Most of these had begun to show their age, and had turned the dull brown most do before falling from their branches, but accompanying an early, light snowfall, even these can retain some of their beauty. In my mind, that's a true representation of the Japanese aesthetic taste for seasonal transition.

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I feel fortunate that I witnessed the transition from both summer to fall and fall to winter here; it really is something unique, if only in that it is given so much consideration by the Japanese. I'd say that on the next go around, I'm planning on paying a little more attention to the leave peak reports so that the next season I'm lucky enough to see will be an even better experience than this one was. Nikko is one prime viewing spot I haven't made it to thus far, so hopefully I'll be able to catch Japanese autumn in its prime. I'm looking forward to the blooming of the cherry blossoms next year, and when they do I'll be there to capture a few pictures of my own. I hope to share them with you all at that point; until later, happy holidays again, and よいおとしを!(Happy New Year!)

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